The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
We human beings like simple moral choices, where one side is clearly Bad, with a capital B, the other is Good, with a capital G, and the Good wins.
I recently watched a German film, Hannah Arendt. She was a prominent German philosopher who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann was a senior Nazi who organised the mass transport of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. After the war he managed to escape to Argentina, but was captured by Israeli secret service agents and brought back to Israel clandestinely, where he was tried, convicted and executed in 1962.
Arendt wrote her observations on the trial in the New Yorker magazine and these caused a sensation. She coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, to express her view that Eichmann was not a monster or a desperately wicked person, the devil incarnate - as some portrayed him - but rather a banal bureaucrat whose biggest evil was carrying out horrendous orders without failing to think about them. Worse still, she asked the question: If Jewish leaders had refused to have contact with Eichmann’s department during the war, or if the Jewish communities had been less well organised, would fewer Jews have been exterminated in the holocaust?
Arendt, who herself was Jewish, had fled Germany in 1937 and had been interned by the French government when Germany invaded France in 1940, was totally unprepared for the storm that her remarks caused. Lifelong friends disowned her, the staff of her university asked her to resign (though she received widespread support from students), she received masses of hate mail (in the days long before internet trolling) and she was vilified in the media.
Whether Arendt’s analysis was accurate, or whether she was taken in by the persona which Eichmann adopted in his attempt to avoid execution, I cannot say. What is clear, though, is that she challenged the generally held view that Eichmann was 100% bad and the Jews and their leaders were 100% good. And that challenge was widely vilified.
We human beings like simple moral choices, where one side is clearly Bad, with a capital B, the other is Good, with a capital G, and the Good wins. I grew up with Cowboy and Indian films: the Cowboys were always Good and the Indians Bad (except Tonto, who helped the Lone Ranger); and the Cowboys always won. It is still the same in children’s TV today, though technologically updated: whether it is Thunderbirds combatting The Hood, the Power Rangers Ninja Storm fighting Lothor and his minions, or a host of other programmes.
This was the simple moral perspective of the Jewish leaders towards Jesus: their system was Good and needed to be protected; Jesus was a threat to that system and therefore was Bad. Look at how they summarily dismissed the testimony of their guards and the modest questioning of Nicodemus (John 7:45-52). This is also how we tend to look at the story of the Exodus: Moses and the Israelites were Good; Pharaoh and the Egyptians were Bad; the Good Guys won.
Yet before the seventh plague, of hail, we read something very interesting: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field” (Exodus 9:20-21). Hang on! Aren’t the Egyptians the Bad Guys? Yet here we have senior Egyptian officials who fear the word of the Lord and act on it.
Faith in unexpected places: it is the theme which Jesus took for his first sermon in his home-home-town synagogue. “There were many widows in Elijah’s time, when … there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed - only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:24-27). Hang on! Sidonians and Syrians were Gentiles - they were the Bad Guys!
Jesus’ challenge to the accepted morality was not well received. “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29). Disturbing people’s prejudices and simplistic moral judgments can have a serious impact on your health!
What more unexpected place could you find faith than at the heart of one of the more ruthless empires of history? But king Nebuchadnezzar reached out and took hold of that faith (Daniel 4). Who would have picked out Cyrus, ruler of the Persian empire as God’s anointed (the word in Hebrew is Messiah)? But that is what is what the Lord did (Isaiah 45:1). Who would have thought that a tax collector, ostracised by his own community, would be willing to follow Jesus and turn his life around? But that is what Zacchaeus did (Luke 9).
Who are the Bad Guys today? The leaders of Daesh, of Boko Haram in Nigeria, of the guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia, of the gangs in your city who generate knife crime? I pray frequently for Kim Jong Un, who has probably killed and imprisoned more Christians in the past year than anybody else in the world. I pray blessing upon him, for Jesus tells us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” (Matthew 5:44). Who knows what effect my prayers will have?
In which unexpected places might we find faith in the future? We do not know, precisely because those places will be unexpected. If groups of Christians got together and prayed for some of the Bad Guys, who knows how things might be transformed. We have seen guerrilla and paramilitary leaders in Colombia come to faith in Christ. We might even see a Saul become a Paul!